With the public kept in the dark, civil unrest breaks out over police behavior while Madison is confronted with a difficult decision.
Well, that didn’t take long. Only a couple of days into the timeline of Fear the Walking Dead and society as we see it, at least in Los Angeles, is quickly falling apart. The precariously built Jenga tower of life is toppling over, and most of the public is still unaware of the nature of the problem. Riots break out and looters wreak havoc, but not simply because there’s a horde of zombies chasing after them — the civil unrest is brought on by the “illness” going around and the behavior of those trying to quell that unrest.
Few people have likely seen and survived what’s happening to their fellow man, but Travis, Madison, and Nick have. “So Close, Yet So Far” picks up moments after the pilot’s deadly culmination. With Calvin dispatched, the trio books it back onto the open road and away from the crime scene. Calvin’s behavior is a shock to the system for Travis and Madison, both trying to contact their respective kids as they drive along.
Travis can’t seem to reach Chris, but Madison makes contact with Alicia, who is at Matt’s house. In the show’s continued clever toying with audience expectations, it appears that Matt is not sick. The cold open suggests differently: As Alicia enters Matt’s home, the door ajar, she calls out, but no one responds. As she makes her way through the house, she spots a smashed flower vase, an overturned floor lamp — signs of a struggle, but little else.
Eventually, however, she finds Matt, and despite some very walker-esque groans, he is in fact, for the moment, still human.
But he’s sick and getting worse. Alicia refuses to leave his side, even as Madison, Travis, and Nick arrive. They want to take her home, but she can’t leave the boy she loves. He’s not suffering from a simple cold, though — as Travis discovers, he’s been bitten, and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes whatever it was Calvin became.
Even Matt seems to have some recognition of the gravity of the situation, as he pushes Alicia to go with her family, promising that he’ll be fine once his parents return home. She lets her love go, but depending how long the family remains in the area, I’d be shocked if the fates the writers have in store for these characters don’t include the return of a zombified Matt. (These aren’t characters versed in the ways of murder — more on that in a bit — so they wouldn’t think to put an end to Matt’s life and spare his body the transformation. They leave him to die in peace, but that means he might still be out there a few episodes from now.)
The reunited group returns home, where things appear relatively normal. Their neighbors are having an outdoor birthday party for their daughter, though the coughing next-door neighbor looks to have the same idea that Travis and Madison have — leave the city, fast.
Before they do so, however, Travis catches Eliza on the phone. He wants to come to her and Chris to help them to safety. Eliza isn’t quite listening to him — she’s more concerned about his flagrant disregard for the terms of their separation laid out in the visitation agreement — but Travis is determined to still find them. And so begins his episode-long crusade of rescuing his first family, while Madison does what she can to hold down his new one.
Nick is on the precipice of going through withdrawals, his addiction taking hold now that he’s gone cold turkey for a couple of days. His doctors aren’t answering Madison’s calls, but she has an idea that might keep her son healthy enough to survive. She leaves Alicia in charge of taking care of Nick, who within a short stay at home has gone from relatively stable to vomiting into a bucket.
Madison’s journey leads her back to school, which is empty. No one responds to the call of the front door’s alarm as she walks in, and not another soul disturbs her as she walks the halls. We know the principal is still there, but he’s absent from his office as Madison breaks in to steal his keys, which she uses to open the crime prevention office. There, she crowbars open a cabinet and begins rifling blindly through it for pills. (ASIDE: It’s tough not to see Madison as a walker hunter in training in this moment. The table beside her fills up with bags of medicine and her crowbar, the latter of which doubles as a nice, sharp weapon in a pinch, should a few walkers need to be fought off. Add a sarcastic tone to her dialogue and she’s practically an unused Left 4 Dead character. END OF ASIDE)
NEXT: An unexpected ally joins Madison just in time for a terrible encounter.
Her stealing is interrupted, however, not by the principal but by Tobias, the boy whose knife she claimed as he spouted on about what was happening to society. Then she brushed him off as a sweet, overly panicked kid, but after her run-in with Calvin, she’s got reason to believe he wasn’t so far off.
Tobias knows the end times are coming, have come, and he’s at school to stock up on supplies from the cafeteria. Madison follows along with him as the surprisingly prescient kid lectures her on how society will fall apart. Though she meekly puts up a fight in the principal’s office, asserting that everything will be fine, her mind is changed by an encounter in the hall.
As they prepare to leave, ready to make a break for the outside world, Madison spots Arty the principal. But something’s wrong — he’s shambling toward them, contorting his mouth as he utters wordless groans. The giant gash, a ribbon of red, flowing down his back, lets the viewer know the Arty Madison worked with is gone and a walker has taken up residence in his body.
Madison, still not quite attuned to the world of walkers about to befall society, tries to talk him back into reality. She wants to save her friend, but the same fate that struck Calvin has befallen her coworker and friend, who lunges at her. Tobias pushes him away, striking at his head a few times, but the young boy and the walker tumble down the stairs during their struggle. The Body Formerly Known as Arty is mere moments away from chowing down on Tobias, Madison takes a fire extinguisher to Arty’s head, multiple strikes ending the fight and saving Tobias’ life.
But it’s a messy battle. This isn’t the world of Rick Grimes savagely tearing through a horde of walkers or Michonne artfully chopping heads like a chef preparing food in a kitchen. No, to Madison, this is still someone she knew, someone she saw day to day, whom she has had to brutally murder. Even if he wasn’t all there, it was still his body, and it’s still a traumatic experience for the mother and school psychiatrist to undergo.
Whatever emotional pain the struggle brings on, Madison buries it down in the immediate aftermath. She needs to take Tobias to safety, and though she offers him solace at her family’s home, he decides to stay with his uncle. (Though the cart full of supplies he went to grab at school does not make the trip with him.) He asks if she’ll be OK, and she assures him he will, but he lingers, seemingly aware that her words are a bit hollow.
And while he may not see her breakdown, Madison lets the reality of the situation bubble up to the surface when she returns home. She has oxycontin for Nick, which she’ll wean him off over time as they head for the desert, and Alicia has taken care of him enough to get him through the day. (Despite her attempt to leave and see Matt, Nick’s health demands her vigilant attention and keeps her home.)
She tells her daughter and son nothing, but as she goes to the bathroom to clean Arty’s blood off her clothing, the tears break through to the surface. The weight of the situation hits her full force as she cries to herself on the rim of the bathtub, alone without the man she loves and with a daughter who would rather be with her dying boyfriend and a son going through drug withdrawals.
Life is falling apart, and the ordeal with Arty is a sign of what’s to come, whether Madison knows it or not. Luckily, she finds some semblance of support in a phone call from Travis, who has had quite a day in his own right, even if he didn’t have to bash in the head of a dear coworker.
NEXT: A murder sets the city on edge.
Travis finds his way to Eliza’s despite the horrendous traffic blocking up the roads. Panic has clearly set in, but there’s no public address frankly explaining the situation at hand. But Travis recognizes that those in the know have some inclination of the situation’s severity when he spots a cop stockpiling water like the sky is about to fall.
For Travis, the sky would fall if he couldn’t reconnect with Chris. Luckily, at Eliza’s, he’s able to finally get his son on the phone (and it only takes calling Chris on Eliza’s phone to do it). By this time, however, what Travis expected to be a simple round-up collapses into a life-threatening situation.
Chris winds up at a protest that quickly forms around a murdered homeless man. The police have shot him in the street, and the crowds (buoyed by the traffic that has grinded to a halt) have amassed to show their anger. Now, the easy presumption is that the man in question had already transformed into a walker and the police, who seem to have some knowledge of the citywide problem, shot him before he could attack.
But it’s also entirely plausible that the man was merely agitated or perhaps just stumbling down the block, and a cop (either trigger-happy or precautious depending on your view) shot him assuming he was something more. Another girl is shot by the cops as she shambles toward them, presumably a walker — but again, because Fear has so played with our expectations, she could very well have still been human.
Whatever the real situation is, it’s difficult to explain to a crowd of people while the government seems content to keep the truth a secret to the masses. It’s Fear dipping its toe into an area that The Walking Dead can’t exactly approach — social commentary of a society akin to our own. As riots break out, protestors shout, Chris videotapes the cops, and the LAPD approaches the masses in full riot gear, the imagery is not unlike video and images that have become increasingly common in our news. Because cities, neighborhoods, and even families are still whole at the start of Fear, there’s an opportunity to examine how those structures collapse, using the behavior of government, law enforcement and more magnified through the zombie apocalypse.
But is “So Close, Yet So Far” successful at doing so? For now, it feels like the start of something, rather than a plotline that has much to say. The imagery is certainly evocative, but are the Fear writers critiquing the establishment at this point? Perhaps, saying that obfuscation of the truth by those who have power and believe they know what’s best can lead to the very problems they try to hide or ignore.
For now, Fear, if it intends to comment in that way, is doing so through the lens of the family unit, as Travis and Eliza arrive at the scene to pick up Chris. They escape just as the fully geared-up policemen arrive to subdue the crowd. But they find themselves in the midst of a much larger ordeal, as they find general havoc in the streets. Cars are being overturned, stores looted, and Travis just wants to find a safe place for his son and ex-wife.
They come upon a barbershop, owned by Daniel Salazar, where he, his wife, and their daughter Ofelia also live. Despite his reticence, the kindness of his wife convinces Salazar to allow Travis’ family to wait out the riots in the front of their store. Travis wants to shield them from what’s happening, but Eliza knows that what is happening is not merely civil unrest. There’s more to it and she realizes that Travis has an inclination of it all.
And he tells her — people die, but they don’t stay dead anymore. They’re coming back, and it’s not something that will be easily handled.
Paramount on Travis’ list of concerns, though, is not investigating this revelation, but keeping his two families safe. He has Eliza and Chris with him, and he finally is able to connect with Madison, who he wants to head into the desert with the kids without him. She protests, but their call cuts out before a final decision is agreed upon.
But Madison soon witnesses the danger around her family, and the idea of leaving sooner rather than later may be appealing in the episodes to come. Her neighbors who threw the birthday party are being attacked by the very next-door neighbor she saw coughing earlier in the episode. Alicia wants to go and help, but Madison bars the door and prevents her from leaving.
She’s seen the violence that would be called for in the situation (a beautifully composed shot of Arty’s dead body enveloped in warmer, reddish orange light juxtaposed with the cold, blue color of the hallway reminds us), she knows what would have to be done if they went outside, and she can guess that it wouldn’t be the last time that violence would be required. While she’s able, Madison wants to keep as much control of the situation as she can.
But knowing what’s happened and only guessing what lies ahead, that desire to keep their lives under control is going to become very, very difficult in the episodes to come.